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Journalist's conviction threatens freedom of speech, says Human Rights Watch

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - New York, October 14, 2010 - The Uzbek authorities should quash the conviction for criminal defamation and insult of the veteran journalist Vladimir Berezovskii and allow him to exercise his right to freedom of speech, Human Rights Watch said today. On October 13, 2010, a Tashkent court convicted Berezovskii, editor of the Russian-language news website http://www.vesti.uz , on the bogus charges.

The charges were brought in July after the State Press and Information Agency's Mass Media Monitoring Center (UzASI) reviewed articles on the Vesti.uz website. In court, Berezovskii was granted an amnesty, which means he will not be subject to any punishment. But his conviction will stand, and he will have a criminal record. He plans to appeal.

"Berezovskii was convicted on allegations of insult and libel that should have never made their way to the courtroom in the first place," said Allison Gill, a Europe and Central Asia adviser at Human Rights Watch. "The Uzbek authorities should immediately stop their relentless campaign against free speech and independent expression."

Restrictive laws allow the authorities to prosecute any journalist whose work the government considers hostile to Uzbekistan. Amendments passed in 2004 to the Criminal Code effectively criminalize the sharing of information critical of human rights in Uzbekistan. Journalists working for foreign media agencies are required by law to be accredited by the Foreign Affairs Ministry.

Berezovskii is one of several journalists who have been targeted for their work in 2010. At least 10 other independent journalists are detained or serving prison sentences.

The indictment against Berezovskii said that the media monitoring center's expert had concluded that 16 articles published on Vesti.uz between August 2009 and January 2010 were defamatory and introduced "to the Uzbek population defamatory, misleading and misinformed information, the distribution of which could incite interethnic and inter-state hostility and create panic among the population." The conclusions did not identify any individual as the injured party.

The articles address issues including labor migration and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Berezovskii told Human Rights Watch that he did not write any of the 16 articles but that the articles, previously published on Russian news websites, were simply re-posted on Vesti.uz. Several news agencies on whose sites the articles first appeared issued statements that were submitted to the court attesting to the fact that the articles were theirs, not Berezovskii's.

Berezovskii told Human Rights Watch that his lawyer submitted several motions to bolster his defense, including a request for further specialist review of the material and requests to call witnesses, but that the judge did not allow them.

On September 28, a Russian Embassy representative was barred from attending the trial. The judge claimed that the diplomat needed permission from the Supreme Court, though all trials in Uzbekistan are open by law unless declared closed for reasons of national security or other compelling interests as defined by law. Several human rights activists who had come to monitor the trial were also initially refused entry, but later allowed in.

Another Tashkent-based journalist, Abdumalik Boboev, who has worked as Voice of America's Uzbekistan correspondent since 2006, is also facing defamation charges and charges of preparing or distributing materials that threaten public security and order. Another charge, "illegal entry into the country," apparently stems from a minor incident involving a missing stamp in Boboev's passport. If convicted, Boboev faces up to eight years in prison.

Boboev's trial began on October 7 at the Mirzo-Ulugbek District Criminal Court. Representatives from the US and UK Embassies who tried to monitor the trial were denied entry.

The defamation charges against Boboev are based on a review of his print and radio materials, also by the media monitoring center. Boboev told Human Rights Watch that he has written articles about the lack of freedom of speech and highlighting the number of imprisoned journalists in Uzbekistan. He has also written about unemployment and the financial crisis, the cotton industry, and foreign relations.

The agency concluded that Boboev's publications insulted the judiciary and law enforcement structures. On October 7, Boboev's lawyer requested an opportunity to question the press agency's experts, but the judge denied the motion.

Boboev worked for Voice of America in Uzbekistan for over five years, and, in 2009, received an award from the US Embassy in Tashkent for his writing about Uzbekistan-US relations.

He repeatedly tried to register with the authorities, as required, but received no response to his numerous applications for accreditation, leaving him vulnerable to being targeted by the government as unregistered. In January, several journalists including Boboev were summoned to the prosecutor's office for questioning about their journalistic activities.

"The charges against Boboev are clearly to punish him for expressing opinions critical of the government," Gill said. "The Uzbek authorities should drop the charges against him immediately and stop using the law to curtail the public's access to information."

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